The Right to Judge Others (Part 1 of 2)

“Don’t judge me!”

How many times have you heard that? When said seriously, the person’s tone is usually quite defensive. They don’t want someone else telling them that they are behaving in a bad, foolish, or ethically questionable way. Or, how about:

“Who are you/we to judge?”

bossy-womanIn this case, the person is probably indicating that another person’s or group’s behavior — perhaps even the customs and beliefs of another culture — should not be considered in any way improper. That is, one should not let their personal or cultural biases dictate the validity of another’s. This is a very common attitude in today’s relativist society and its (supposed) concern with “tolerance” and political correctness. But, is it proper? Should we never be allowed to form an opinion about other people and things, let alone pronounce them to be in some sense “bad” or “wrong”?

First, let’s look at this from a practical, common sense perspective, okay? There are many definitions, but at its core, “to judge” means “to evaluate or assess”. Often, a decision is made based on that evaluation/assessment.

We make judgments about things all the time, from the nutritional value of food to the appearance of someone’s clothes or hairstyle, from the content of a book or video to the ambience of a restaurant. We also make judgments about people, when assessing the appropriateness (or not) of the behavior of children, employees, a company/organization or governmental body, or even that of a fellow-commuter or diner. And, I would argue, it’s perfectly legitimate to do so.

Sometimes, when we make these assessments/evaluations, we are making comparisons against our own tastes & preferences. It’s pretty, he’s boring, there’s too much fat, it’s OK for my kids to watch/listen to this, it’s not worth the money, she shouldn’t drive so fast, this is a nice place, etc. These are all judgments that are commonly based on relative standards. In other words, someone else may think differently, and that’s probably OK. (Of course, telling someone that their sister is ugly or their house is a mess — or, their house is ugly and their sister is a mess — may make them feel bad, so whether or not you should say anything is, well, a judgment call.)

The real problem with “judging” occurs when you indicate, either explicitly or implicitly, that you are using an objective law or standard. This is usually the case when we refer to someone’s moral behavior — e.g., regarding substance abuse, sexual activity, lying, cheating, financial issues, relationship issues, etc. People don’t want to be told that they are doing something “wrong”, even if they know deep down that it is. And, if the person doing the judging has the nerve to imply that their assessment of that behavior is more than simply a suggestion or a reflection of more than just their personal preference, then the person on the receiving end is likely to get even more offended at the “judgmental” attitude.

Is it wrong, then, to point out when someone’s action/activity or belief is quite plainly foolish or even dangerous to themselves and/or to others? I don’t think so, but… and here is where the “judgmental” bit comes in… the challenge is to have the right attitude ourselves. We should never be mean about it or condescending or hypocritical (more on this in Part 2). We should also try our best to be fair and not excessively critical. Plus, we need to be sensitive, diplomatic, and have the welfare of the “judgees” (and others) in mind when confronting the issue. This is, in my judgment, the best way to handle such things.

I should also point out the irony of being told, “Don’t judge me!” In warning or reprimanding you against “judging”, this person has, in fact, made at least two judgments themselves. First, they have judged (i.e., evaluated or assessed) that “judging” is bad/wrong. Second, they have judged (i.e., evaluated or assessed) that anyone who commits the offense of “judging” is, therefore, bad/wrong for doing so. S/he is immediately guilty of the “crime” they have accused or warned you about. Nice! Of course, whether s/he is using a relative or objective standard to decide this is another question. (If it’s relative, then they really have no business telling you how to behave in the first place.)

In a couple days, we’ll continue with a specifically Christian focus on the issue, taking a look at people’s favorite “anti-judging” Bible verse….

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